As COVID-19 cases surge, state issues sweeping order closing many nonessential businesses

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The Oklahoma State Capitol BRIANNA BAILEY/The Frontier
Saying he expects Oklahoma’s cases of the novel coronavirus “to get into the thousands,” Gov. Kevin Stitt ordered Tuesday the closure of nonessential businesses in 19 counties and suspended all nonessential surgeries, while also issuing a statewide order that vulnerable Oklahomans stay home.

For weeks Stitt had opposed issuing a gubernatorial order to close businesses even as mayors in the state’s largest cities took those steps.

But on Tuesday, as the number of confirmed cases reached 109, Stitt said consultation with his multi-agency task force led him to take additional measures.

“We’re at the very beginning of this curve, and as you can see, if we take no measure at all, the cases will outstrip our capacity and our health care system,” Stitt said at a virtual press conference on Tuesday afternoon.

As Stitt issued his orders, several mayors said they would follow the policies.

Both Oklahoma City and Tulsa said their city police departments would handle enforcement of the order, though it was unclear what exactly that would entail. Holt said last week that businesses who did not follow his shutdown order could face a misdemeanor criminal charge. He said on Tuesday that Oklahoma City police had spoken with some businesses that may have been in violation, but that no citations had been written.

Holt also said that while police would be enforcing the order of no groups larger than 10, he largely expected Oklahomans across the state to self-regulate.

Stitt stopped short of issuing a statewide shelter-in-place order, despite calls from medical organizations urging that he adopt such a policy.

Instead, the governor issued a “safer-at-home” policy that requires the state’s “vulnerable populations” to stay home until at least April 30, but includes exemptions for essential travel such as grocery and pharmacy trips.

Under Stitt’s order, all “nonessential” businesses in the 19 counties that have confirmed COVID-19 cases must close for at least 21 days starting at midnight Wednesday. Businesses that must close include gyms, theaters and hair salons.

Kevin Stitt speaks during a Governor candidate forum at First United Methodist Church in Tulsa on Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2018. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

Additional counties will be added if confirmed COVID-19 cases are found, Stitt said.

There were 109 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Oklahoma as of Tuesday afternoon, up 28 cases from the day before. according to the state health department. Twenty-five people have been hospitalized and three have died.

“I actually think our number of cases are closer to over 500 right now,” Stitt said. “They’re going to get into the thousands.”

In an effort to conserve medical supplies and free up hospital beds in preparation for an influx of patients sick with COVID-19, Stitt ordered a 14-day suspension of all elective surgeries, minor medical procedures and non-emergency dental procedures.

The governor said he was suspending visits to nursing homes and long-term care facilities until further notice. He announced a statewide ban on all gatherings of more than 10 people.

The governor’s office is expected to release more details on Tuesday afternoon.

Fifteen medical organizations on Monday urged the governor to order a shelter in place order and close nonessential businesses to slow the spread of COVID-19 in the state.

Stitt had said that Oklahomans on their own were following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, which call for social distancing, frequent handwashing and avoiding gatherings of 10 or more people.

However, the organizations’ letter called the CDC guidelines “the bare minimum” and stated shelter-in-place policies have proved to be the most effective way to combat the spread of the virus.

Several cities and states have ordered residents to stay home — Dallas County, the cities of Austin and San Antonio, and the state of Louisuanna have such policies in place.

The measures announced on Tuesday were designed to provide an approach specific to Oklahoma, said Dr. Kayse Shrum, Oklahoma Secretary of Science and Innovation. Experts and officials have analyzed data to examine when the state might see a sudden spike in COVID-19 patients, she said.

The state is focused on mitigating transmission of the virus, and allowing for more time to expand testing and hospital infrastructure, Shrum said. The orders are intended to keep hospitals from exceeding their capacity,

“So we believe that this approach will keep us from having a steep curve that will outpace what our health care infrastructure can handle here in Oklahoma,” she said.

Norman mayor Breea Clark issued a “stay at home” order that goes into effect at 11:59 p.m. Wednesday and remains in effect until April 14, when city officials will re-evaluate Norman’s status.

In Tulsa, mayor GT Bynum said he was interpreting Stitt’s order as “largely a shelter in place order.”

As of Tuesday morning, the state health department had identified 12 positive COVID-19 cases in Tulsa County.

“The order today impacts any facility, any open space,” Bynum said. “Does this mean people can’t go outside? No. The threat of the virus is not from the air, birds and squirrels, the threat is from other people.

“We don’t want you to be boxed up inside … we want people to go outside. But practice safe social distancing … this isn’t just about the BOK center or Performing Arts Center. This is about all venues in Tulsa.”

Bynum said the order mandating no groups of more than 10 people would be enforced by the Tulsa Police Department.

“I would ask everybody in Tulsa to take a moment and think about where we’ve come in a week,” Bynum said, noting that it was less than a week ago that he issued an order closing many businesses and making restaurants do takeout orders only. “The purposes of those orders are to reduce the … rapid transmission of this virus. The less people you come in contact with the better your odds are of not getting COVID-19 and not spreading it.”

Bynum thanked Stitt for his order on Tuesday that closed nonessential businesses in 19 counties, saying he expected the governor “will save the lives of people in Oklahoma.”

“I know that was not a decision he came to lightly,” Bynum said. “He has to think about the whole state and it is a very diverse state, but I am thankful.”

Bynum said Tulsa city leaders started preparing last week for a shelter in place order, not knowing necessarily when it would be ordered, but wanting to be prepared should it arrive.

He said that Stitt made the right call having the order affect counties as a whole rather than a city-by-city approach that had been piecemealed by mayors across the state.

“The point … is to slow the spread of a virus, and the virus doesn’t pay attention to city lines,” Bynum said.

During a press conference on Tuesday afternoon, Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt said the city did not at that point plan on issuing restrictions beyond Stitt’s most recent amended executive order, the full text of which was not yet available, and though he understood Stitt’s executive order to mean that those most vulnerable to the disease should shelter in place, he also encouraged anyone who can to stay home.

“Keep in mind that most further steps will require your buy-in,” Holt said. “In a free society, the reality is only you can force yourself to shelter in place. I wield a pen, not an army. I will need you to be my partner in any such effort.”

Oklahoma City and Tulsa were among the first cities, along with Norman, to require that dine-in-only restaurants, bars, gyms and other businesses shut down on March 17, and Holt praised Bynum as well as other mayors in the Oklahoma City area for taking action.

“Though we may not know the results for some time, I believe we saved lives by taking those actions, despite how difficult they were,” Holt said.

We did what we had to do to save our people,” he said. “We waited for no one.”

Holt said he and other state leaders understand the economic toll the shut-downs will have on businesses, but that failure to act likely would have cost lives and the economic hit would have happened anyway.

“I know I speak for the Governor, other mayors and public health officials when I say none of us are ignorant to the economic cost of what we are having to do as a community,” Holt said. “But COVID-19 created this crisis, not us. And like it or not, there is no safe harbor where COVID-19 spares us our economic toll. The only choice we have is how many people we let it kill along the way. Taking no action would have led to the same economic result.”

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Kassie McClung

Staff writer

Kassie McClung joined The Frontier in May 2016. She reports on health, criminal justice and other state issues. Kassie holds a bachelors degree in multimedia journalism from Oklahoma State University. She likes dogs, maps and data. She can be reached at Kassie@readfrontier.com or 918-935-1044. Follow her on Twitter @KassieMcClung.
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